There is a debate amongst the Sages as to the light source, the Tzohar, used in Noach’s ark (Rashi 6:16). Some say that it was a window. Others say it was a bright gem whose radiance illuminated the closed space. Commentators – including the Chasam Sofer – see the need for an internal light source as related to the impropriety of Noach witnessing the destruction of the world through an ark window. To these commentators, just as Lot was not allowed to look back at the destruction of Sodom, Noach was not to observe the devastation of the flood.
Maharal (Gur Aryeh 6:16) offers a different view. To him, the ark was a miniature world, salvaged from the old one, that had to have an independent infrastructure, including a radiant gemstone that served as its “sun”.
This gem served an additional role as well. The ark was a very simple, practical structure. Despite the many sweet, contemporary illustrations of Noah’s ark that present it as an attractive boat, the Torah describes it as a simple, rectangular box. In fact, ‘box’ is the simplest translation of ‘Teivah’, the Hebrew word used to describe the ark. Its practical, non-aesthetic nature, is brought out in the instruction to Noach to waterproof the ark by coating it with pitch inside and out, despite the fact that the coating would not smell very good. Noach, his family, and the animal survivors were under siege. The world around them was being destroyed. They needed a simple and effective refuge to protect them, and that was what they got.
Yet the world would ultimately need to be rebuilt. And the new world would need not just the practical ingredients of survival, but the delicate elements of beauty. Noach was required to bring a gem into the ark to preserve something more than life itself; he had to preserve beauty and sunlight.
One can draw a clear line from the gem that Noach brought to the ark to provide its sunlight, to the gem that hung from Avraham’s neck. The Talmud (TB Bava Basra 16b; see introduction of Rabbenu Bachye to Parshas Yisro) describes a precious gem that Avraham had around his neck, that would immediately heal every sick person who saw it. When Avraham died, records the Talmud, G-d hung that gemstone from the sun.
Noach disappeared into the ark as the world around him was destroyed, and the light of the sun, moon and stars dimmed. G-d had him bring a mini-sun into the ark, a beautiful gem that would represent a bit of that sunlight, salvaged and nurtured for the day that he would emerge from the ark. That day came, but Noach was ultimately destined to be the one who would only salvage the remnants of the old world. He would pass on the gem to his descendant Avraham who would develop the beauty and glory of the new world, first by sharing the light of G-d with those with whom he came in contact, but ultimately by “restoring that light to the sun”, illuminating and enriching the world as a whole.
The instinct to see beyond survival remains a part of us until this day.
Mark Reches z”l and his brother Henry לאוי”ט, survived the Holocaust in a dark hole beneath the barn floor of a generous Polish family. They spent almost two years there, with little light, little food, and no room to even stand. That was their ark, their refuge as the world around them was destroyed. They got by.
Henry, who was three years old at the time, recalls how his brother Mark, two years older, would collect scraps of paper, and use them to draw pictures.
Physical survival was only part of their task. Ultimately they would need to emerge from that pit, from their ark, and rebuild the world. And their new world would need to be – and would prove to be – magnificent and beautiful, creating a family that would have its own radiance and beauty, and that would enhance the beauty of their community as a whole. The seeds from which that beauty would grow were the gemstones, those drawings – that the family still has – that ensured more than basic survival, but the preservation of the richness of light and beauty.
In our own complex, challenging and busy lives, it is not enough to tread water, to survive. We must preserve and nurture the beauty and sunlight that will ultimately fill and inspire our lives.